Bootprints Hiking Guide: To Pikes Peak on the Barr Trail
June 17, 2017
The Barr Trail is a 25-mile round-trip hike to the summit of Pikes Peak (14,110 feet), towering 7,500 vertical feet above nearby Manitou Springs. The initial trail was originally constructed through the lower forest for mining access in the mid-19th century. Subsequently, Fred Barr transformed and extended the trail to the summit of Pikes Peak for his burro train business, starting the work in 1914 and finishing his pathway to the summit in 1921.
My early season trip began soon after a foot of snow fell in the mountains. I did not expect to reach the summit through the soft, heavy spring snow that would undoubtedly remain in the upper forest and boulder field extending to the summit of Pikes Peak.
Pike Forest base camp
Before reaching Manitou Springs, I established a dispersed base camp with one of my backpacking tents in Pike National Forest. As an outdoor recreation enthusiast (aka hiking addict), I wanted to test the comfort of my latest acquisition: a Marmot Helium sleeping bag.
My fourth sleeping bag, the Helium is a three-season bag, 2 pounds light, with high-quality 800 down insulation. When temperatures dropped below freezing, the Helium gave me a magnificent night of sleep, allowing me to sleep through my alarm.
For those uninitiated with dispersed camping, public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management allow primitive campsites outside of developed campgrounds. This includes the White River National Forest that surrounds most of Summit County. Regulations vary by jurisdiction, but rules usually forbid campsites within 100 or 200 feet of waterways, roads and trails. Check with a district ranger office for specific rules in any locality.
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Passing 'The Incline'
An hour after breaking camp, I was at the trailhead parking area. The Barr Trail begins at 6,600 feet — several thousand feet lower than access to many 14ers in the central Rocky Mountains. During the first thousand vertical feet, the trail ascends on switchbacks with a link to a steep set of stairs called "The Incline."
The Incline is an abandoned railway grade that was converted into an exercise staircase covering 2,000 vertical feet in less than a mile. Regional athletes use the area for training (the Olympic Training Center is located in nearby Colorado Springs) and the link to the Barr Trail results in dozens of runners coming down the first few miles of the hiking trail, returning from the upper section of "The Incline."
Hike to Pikes Peak
Two hours from the trailhead, at 8,600 feet, the Barr Trail reaches the solitude of an aspen and fir forest with sparse traffic. Four hours into the climb, at 10,200 feet, the Barr Camp provides overnight backpackers the opportunity to rest for a fee. A stream at the side of the trail provides cold, clear water to refill water bottles for hikers.
Arriving at noon, I filtered water to refresh the pair of liter bottles that I carried. During the day, I drank six liters of water. I took a snack break after hiking 8 miles, devouring a few trail bars along with a bag of corn chips. Then, I broke through the tree line and entered a soggy snowfield after nearly 10 miles and seven hours of climbing to 12,000 feet.
In summer, an easy pathway of switchbacks through the boulder field above the krummholz leads to the summit of Pikes Peak. Once above the trees, the Barr Trail offers views for miles in every direction, from the Garden of the Gods to the distant Eastern Plains beyond Colorado Springs.
The entire Barr Trail hike can easily consume 14 to 16 hours, challenging only due to the length of the trail. An ideal approach to the summit should be completed before the common afternoon thunderstorms roll over the mountain.
How to get there
From Breckenridge, the Barr Trail is 100 miles and two hours southeast at Manitou Springs. Heading south from Breckenridge on Colorado Highway 9, turn south on U.S. Highway 285 at Fairplay. Then, turn left and east toward Hartsel. Drive through the Pike National Forest at Wilkerson Pass and continue through Florissant and Woodland Park. After taking the exit to Business Highway 24 at Manitou Springs, drive into town and turn right on Ruxton Avenue from the roundabout, then proceed a half-mile toward the base of Pikes Peak and the cog railway station. A ride to the summit is $40 per person. Find the Barr Trail parking area immediately past a red brick building (an old hydroelectric building).
The parking fee is $20 per day, plus a $5 fee for the telephone call to an attendant who will take credit card and license plate information for parking. Although it is reserved for hikers and overnight backpackers, the parking area fills with vehicles for athletes seeking a workout on the first 3 miles of trail and the Incline steps. There is free parking available downtown in Manitou Springs, adding a few more miles to the hike.
Author Kim Fenske's writings include, "Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties," and "Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness," both available from Amazon Kindle books.